Troubador A Visit to Gansu Province for the Chinese New Year

Released: 18/02/2020

eISBN: 9781838598082

Format: eBook

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A Visit to Gansu Province for the Chinese New Year


In 2003 about sixty percent of China’s population still lived in rural areas. And of that population, about forty million still lived in the man-made cave dwellings known as yaodong. Whereas life in the cities had changed radically, in the country change was slower and many old customs still existed – as the author of this book, Helen Wallimann, was to experience during her stay with a Chinese family in their farmhouse on the loess plateau of Gansu Province, northern China.

There, during the Chinese New Year holiday, she witnessed everyday family life, the busy market, weddings and preparations for weddings, and also various traditions connected with the New Year celebrations or the commemoration of the dead. She visited people in farmhouses and yaodongs, sat with them on the heated kang, ate with them; she watched women doing the cooking, spinning, sewing shoes, doing embroidery; she chatted with old ladies about foot-binding and their work in the fields, with young women about courtship and marriage. She talked with school teachers about schools, a long-distance truck-driver about his work, the local doctor about euros and Swiss francs. She met a government surveyor, a woman who ran a bus line, a man who sold clothes in Moscow…

This does not claim to be an academic anthropological study, it is simply the diary of an open-minded woman who noted and photographed what she saw and heard. Now that so much has changed and that many traditions have been lost or have lost their meaning, this account may serve as a partial record of a way of life that is rapidly disappearing.

Helen Wallimann's descriptions and photographs of a New Year stay in Gansu give a wonderful, lively picture of daily life for millions of Chinese people, far from the neon and skyscrapers of China's coastal cities. Frances Wood, former head of the Chinese collections at the British Library

Through her vivid description and the numerous photos, the daily life of the people she lived with for nearly three weeks in the midst of winter is recreated in the reader’s mind. Helen Wallimann has the gift of conveying [the] feeling of being accepted as a friend of the family, of being at home to her readers. PD Dr Johannes Reckel, Curator of the East- and Central Asian Collection at Göttingen State and University Library

See an interview with the author about her book on https://youtube/8Fnd8_bE_x8

See an extract from the book in "China Eye", Spring 2020 issue, on

An extract was also published in the Winter 2021 issue of the "US-China Review".

Author Helen Wallimann has spent much time in China, knows the country and its people, and speaks the language. This makes her more than qualified to tell the tale of a trip she made in 2003 to stay with a Chinese family in Gansu Province in the northeast of the country. At that time about 40 million rural residents still lived in man-made cave dwellings called yaodong, where life had remained very much unchanged for decades. Wallimann had always wanted to see them. So when she was offered the chance to visit for Chinese New Year she (intrepid traveller that she is) jumped at the opportunity. The result is this truly fascinating and compelling diary of the 3 weeks that she spent there with her host family. She was the only westerner in the village and immersed herself fully in local life. No first-world hotels with all modern amenities, but authentic and genuine Chinese rural life, with its charms and inevitable – from a western viewpoint – drawbacks. Everyday life – from special occasions like weddings, New Year festivities, to the more mundane - shopping in the markets, cooking, needlework, visiting family and friends, keeping warm (difficult), bathing with little water, and of course those various latrines and toilets without mains water and sewage. Oh those toilets! Kudos to the author – she never complains! It’s a vivid account, eloquently written and accompanied by wonderful photographs. One thing I particularly appreciated was the non-judgmental tenor of her writing. So many travelogues can’t seem to avoid a slightly superior tone, a chance to mock or play certain local experiences or characters for laughs. Wallimann never does this and thus avoids all the tropes of lesser travel writing. I enjoyed this so much and read it in one sitting. I felt I had gained a real insight into everyday life in a very different culture, and it will inform my reading of contemporary Chinese literature as well. Highly recommended.

by Mandy on goodreads

A Visit To Gansu Province is a travel diary covering two and half weeks during the Chinese New Year of 2003 spent in a rural community. Author Helen Walliman was given the opportunity to visit the family of a fellow teacher that she met while teaching in a Chinese university. Walliman had mentioned her interest in the notorious cave dwellings of the area and her friend invited her for the holidays.
Yang Tao’s parents still lived in one of the cave homes known as yaodongs, and the whole family made Helen feel very welcome. Although there was much poverty, Helen was treated as a special guest and she experienced many traditions and learnt about their beliefs, whilst meeting many of the extended family and friends.
I quite like cultural books about places that I know nothing about. The insights into the schools in the area and the travel options were very eye-opening. Although I don’t know much about the vibrant cities in China, I could easily imagine how different life in this province was from the cities.
Written in an informative style with photographs to break up the narrative, this was an easy and enjoyable read. I think that anyone who is interested in the history of rural China might enjoy this book.

by Rosie Amber on , Goodreads, Amazon, Twitter)

by Rosie Amber

Ein persönliches, höchst interessantes Buch über das Leben in der Provinz Gansu

In diesem spannenden Tagebuch schildert die profunde Chinakennerin Helen Wallimann ihren dreiwöchigen Besuch im Jahr 2003 bei einer chinesischen Familie in der Provinz Gansu. Helen Wallimann beschreibt anschaulich, wie in dieser ländlichen Gegend – 2003 lebten noch viele in den traditionellen Yaodong – das Neujahrsfest und Hochzeiten gefeiert werden, aber auch das alltägliche Leben, die Freuden und Sorgen ihrer Gastgeber. Weil Helen Wallimann sehr gut chinesisch spricht, aber auch weil sie wohl sehr offen und einfühlsam ist, gewann sie schnell das Vertrauen ihrer Gastgeber, die sie herzlich aufnahmen und sie in vieles einweihten. So bekommen wir einen äusserst interessanten Einblick in das Leben der Menschen in Gansu. Helen Wallimann gelingt es auch, uns Befremdliches aufzuzeigen, ohne es zu verurteilen oder aber zu glorifizieren. Schöne, informative Fotos ergänzen diesen sehr gut und humorvoll geschriebenen Bericht. Ich las dieses Buch mit grösstem Vergnügen und empfehle es allen, die am „wirklichen“ China interessiert sind.

by Barbara Göldi on Amazon

by Barbara Göldi

The author has been interested in Chinese language and culture for many years and has visited China to teach English on a number of occasions. On a visit in 2002 a casual remark to a young Chinese teacher resulted in an invitation to visit his home village in Gansu Province a remote part of North Western China during the Chinese New Year in January 2003. During the 2 to 3-week trip she kept a diary in which she describes her experiences of the long journey to the village, the landscape and houses and most significantly the daily life of the ordinary inhabitants, their dress, domestic arrangements, food, culture and complex family relations. She lived with the family of her friend, who welcomed her into their lives, and her ability to speak Mandarin, though not the local dialects, meant she was able to talk to the people, particularly the women of the area and form the kind of close relationships that most foreign visitors would be denied. Some of the villagers still lived in old caves carved out of the loess, the compacted wind-blown soil of the region. Helen was the first westerner some villagers had ever encountered. Her vivid descriptions, helped by the photographs she took, really brought the village and its inhabitants to life showing how people can live simply without all the clutter and distractions of our modern world. The importance of family, traditions and community working together and supporting each other through the happy and sad times. I liked the simple details; the resourcefulness with which the caves are made, dealing with the cold of winter, the communal toilets and the endless meals she was expected to eat while visiting other families, which in China are an essential part of the traditional hospitality they extend to strangers. This is a short but fascinating account of a traditional culture and people inhabiting a remote region which at that time was only starting to be touched by the modern world. I was completely captivated and for a short while experienced something of lives very different from those we lead in the West or in the growing cities of China. I can highly recommend this book.

by Amazon review

Das Buch 'A Visit to Gansu Province for...' schildert das einfache Leben chinesischer Familien in ihren Höhlenwohnungen. Es wird auch ein Spezieller Blick auf das Leben der Frauen in verschiedenen Generationen geworfen. Ein sehr einfühlsames Buch, das mir sehr gefallen hat.

by Amazon review

Das einfache und harte Leben chinesischer Familien in Höhlenbehausungen im Nordwesten Chinas

Das Buch 'A Visit to Gansu Province for...' schildert das einfache Leben chinesischer Familien in ihren Höhlenwohnungen. Es wird auch ein Spezieller Blick auf das Leben der Frauen in verschiedenen Generationen geworfen. Ein sehr einfühlsames Buch, das mir sehr gefallen hat. (Amazon)

by Monica Arnold

Helen Wallimann

Helen Wallimann was born and brought up in Cheltenham UK. After her MA from Edinburgh University she worked in publishing in Munich, Paris and London. From 1973 until 2001 she was employed as a teacher of French and English at the Kantonsschule Solothurn, Switzerland. She still lives in Solothurn today.

Helen Wallimann taught English at Chinese universities for two years (1989-90 and 2002-03). In 2008 and in 2011 she taught English didactics to Chinese schoolteachers in Gansu Province. To improve her understanding of Chinese culture she attended various courses and seminars on Chinese language and literature at Zurich University for about ten years from 2003.

Translations by Helen Wallimann:

- from Chinese: Several essays by Chinese artists and critics in Joerg Huber, Zhao Chuan (eds.), A New Thoughtfulness in Contemporary China, transcript Verlag, Bielefeld 2011 and The Body at Stake, transcript Verlag, Bielefeld 2013; Leung Ping-kwan, The Visible and the Invisible. Poems, MCCM creations, Hong Kong 2012.

- from German: Legends from the Swiss Alps, MCCM creations, Hong Kong 2015; Epitaph for a Working Man, Matador 2015; Wasp Days, Matador 2016; A Long Blue Monday, Matador 2018.

In China, 2003
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